Canaries in the Coal Mine

MSLs are well positioned to signal early opportunities and risks.
May 01, 2004

MSL programs were a technical outgrowth of sales, but they have since evolved to partake in field-based clinical and educational efforts for companies’ products. However, in many pharma companies, that evolution has not gone far enough. Companies still continue to focus MSL activities on pushing information out rather than pulling it in from the field and integrating it into their decision-making processes. As such, companies are missing the opportunity to leverage MSLs within a sensory web.

The sensory web is part of a strategic early warning system (SEWS) that signals to management to look at early signs of significant risks and opportunities and to act before a crisis is inevitable, or the opportunity is lost to a competitor. Early adopters of better sensory pathways enjoy a significant period of first-move advantage. Two examples were Merck and Glaxo-Wellcome, which during the early 1990s benefited from good use of trained competitive intelligence (CI) professionals in sensing external changes. In the 2000s, AstraZeneca enjoys such a lead.

However, pharma companies have yet to integrate MSLs into their SEWS. This article examines why companies should use those professionals as part of such a system and explains where and how intelligence can pay dividends.

Sensory Pathways

Pharma companies typically keep a finger on the pulse of the industry through many sources such as conferences, scientific publications, and patent searches. Scientists monitor technological innovation to update their discovery process. The sales force gathers anecdotal competitor information from the field. CI professionals collect competitive information systematically; regulatory and lobbying groups track regulatory changes; pharma executives interact with peers and regulators; and multitudes of consulting firms and vendors create a flood of market reports and product utilization trends.

Those activities produce data, and often analysis, for pharma’s decision makers. However, some large companies think that type of market research is a substitute for a SEWS. Yet, market research can never achieve the level of discourse with trendsetters in the industry that MSLs can and will leave companies without the information most important to their future.

“Medical science liaisons are the eyes and ears in the field for the company when it comes to clinical direction,” says David Cram, PharmD, team leader for the hematology MSLs at Genentech. “MSLs are sometimes not recognized for this capability.”

MSLs often remain sheltered inside sales and marketing support functions and from participating in the company’s strategic risk management. MSL directors at some companies don’t believe that MSLs function beyond calling on doctors and making scientific presentations. Senior management may be sensitive to leaking strategic information from field-based programs. Still others completely miss the mark of what competitive intelligence actually is: One director of market research/business intelligence at a US subsidiary of a large European pharma company objects to admitting the role of MSLs in collecting CI on the ground that they will be seen as spies. However, information from MSLs that stops at the next reporting level (their directors) without proceeding to the appropriate users (top management) cannot be transformed into strategic intelligence for decision makers.

Even as some forward-looking companies assign competitive intelligence to MSL job descriptions, most of those professionals are neither trained in basic intelligence concepts nor familiar with the intelligence process. However, if trained, that intelligence can pay off in several areas.

Alliances and partnerships. “I don’t think companies are looking at MSLs in licensing opportunities as they should,” says Elio Evangelista, senior analyst of Cutting Edge Information. “Our licensing study showed that many opportunities come across large pharma every day and companies probably are not tapping into the information that MSLs have.”

Indeed, MSLs are frequently the industry point of contact for thought leaders who are involved in early-stage development of new chemical or molecular entities. And although licensing groups evaluate potential deals through clinical data generated by compounds or technologies, MSLs can provide a real-world picture of the data to licensing groups and access the thought leaders who support the utilization of potential commercial products.

MSLs as talent scouts and trendspotters. MSLs are effective at spotting established research talent and “rising stars” within a therapeutic area. MSLs are also quick to spot seasoned researchers who fall below commercial groups’ radars, but who can become highly influential as a product’s clinical development continues into new indications or expanded uses. Breadth and depth of scientific knowledge, frequent interactions with top thoughtleaders, and staying abreast of the latest clinical trends: these are conducive to out-of-the-box thinking characteristic of field-based MSLs. Indeed, MSLs often become trendspotters themselves, with insight to confer competitive advantage to an organization. Companies that integrate their MSLs into SEWS are better prepared to anticipate competitor moves, act against disruptive technologies, and in some cases, gain entry into new markets.

Practical solutions. MSLs are removed from corporate biases, or blind spots, because they are outside the traditional corporate office setting. Because they are based in the field, and closer to the customers, they are less likely to participate in “groupthink” and can better understand perspectives that companies can miss. That position strengthens the case for positioning MSLs as pharma’s expert environmental scanners, who can contribute a high level of balanced insight for both the scientific and commercial businesses.

Integration Is Key

The repositioning of MSLs from field-based versions of a medical information department to a front-line sensory element of an early warning system requires several changes at the executive level. Such a change won’t come easy, as most pharma companies are slow to adopt new sensory pathways. Instead, they throw more and more resources, with lower marginal yield, at traditional vendor-provided data sources (for a hefty fee)—which does little to guide them to untapped market opportunities and hidden risks.

Although adding some monitoring responsibilities to an MSL program is not enough to give pharmaceutical companies a competitive edge, SEWS don’t have to be built from scratch. They can be created from existing MSL activities, such as trade-show intelligence. MSL teams frequently attend data-intensive scientific meetings without a well-coordinated plan, and the information they collect fails to transform into intelligence. Scientific conferences are fertile ground for generating early warning alerts that can be monitored and followed up by response teams. Alerts may also be issued from other MSL program functions, including investigator-initiated trials, advisory boards, and educational programs.

To get ahead of the pack, pharma must harness MSL programs to produce sensory data. To stay there, as experience proves, companies must integrate that data into the decision-making process.

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